The monster devouring our English capability

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 January, 2009, 12:00am

Opinions are plastic. But facts are stubbornly metallic. Of 100,000 candidates at last year's Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination, more than 12,000 earned a score of '0' in English. The failure rate is nearly 60 per cent, if you consider scoring 2 out of 5+ a failure. The repeater rate is 30 per cent. In A-levels, it is downright disastrous: more than 70 per cent of students from the Chinese-medium schools failed their English, dashing their dreams of going to university.

Yet, those who fathered the much-maligned mother-tongue teaching policy are fighting tooth and nail with those who favour change. But they are all barking up the wrong tree. Label or no label, the problems will not go away. What is defeating our children and our schools is an exam system that turns classrooms into torture chambers.

Local teachers are one-trick performers: herding students through a maze of drills towards the exam inferno. There are no cultural crossings, no joy, no love of the world's most flexible language. For all its billions of educational dollars, Hong Kong is simply not getting its money's worth. Forget about being a hub. We are too damaged educationally for such a pipe dream.

This twisted system dictates what is taught, how it is taught and where. It defines the role of principals and marginalises native English teachers who are underutilised by not being a part of the exam charade. Exam results are a principal's report card. No principal will risk his or her reputation or the survival of the school by not overdrilling students for the monster exams. The teachers themselves are older victims of the same system. How do you expect them to teach differently?

Providers of teacher-training programmes are gearing up to breed more English teachers to feed the need enlarged by the loosening of the language leash. But, until the exam evil is exorcised, there is not a ghost of a chance that English will improve in Hong Kong. It will most certainly bedevil any reform.

Judging by the educational ills, Hong Kong is ill-qualified to design English exams. Ours is a system that has given us idiotic essay topics such as 'Lemon Tea'.

It has also given us the deadly benchmark exams for teachers. These exams are an unmitigated disaster. The exam paper on metalanguage, in particular, has been the downfall of many popular and passionate teachers. In one truly tragic case, a Harvard graduate whose father donated tens of millions of dollars to set up local schools for the poor volunteered to teach in his father's schools. But, to his utter dismay, he flunked this single baffling benchmark paper. Today, he hides in shame and is lost to teaching. He, alas, is not alone.

Don't pin our hopes on changing the school labels. Pin them on the head of the examination authority issuing a one-word command to his English team: 'disband'. Until that happens, you can argue till kingdom come about the pros and cons of mother-tongue teaching, but it won't affect the number of victims of, or refugees from, our wretched education system.

Philip Yeung is a Hong Kong- based university editor.